*note Global Warming is VERY BAD and title is sarcasm.
Flashback to 1992, it’s early in the morning and a decrepit high school teacher stands before a class discussing the finer points of history. In the back row sits a smart ass, me, not listening and telling himself why should a future marine biologist pay attention in history class. Fast forward 15 years and the marine biologist wishes he remembers more about the discussion on the Northwest Passage. Unfortunately, all that runs through my brain are Charlie Brown’s teachers.
If you are like me and bit foggy on the Northwest Passage, here is a five cent refresher. The British coined the term Northwest Passage for the potential northern oceanic pass that would allow vessels to move between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The earliest explorations for the fabled passage were by Cortes in 1539. The late 1500’s were marked by British explorers, Martin Frobisher, Humphrey Gilbert, and John Davis. Several expeditions followed, all with little success of finding the passage but tempered by the acquisition of new lands. Some attempts lead to deaths of entire crews. Notable of these is the Sir John Franklin expedition in which all of the crew members were lost to starvation, scurvy, cannibalism, and lead poisoning from food sealed in tins. The first to transverse the Northwest Passage was Sir Robert McClure using a combination of both sledge and ship. Ironically this was done during the search for Franklin’s team in which McClure’s own ship became trapped in the ice for three winters. The passage was finally conquered entirely by sea by the Norwegian Amundsen in 1906. However the route being both slow and shallow at many spots was commercially impractical. Over 100 years later and global warming is heating both the northern oceans and territorial disputes over the region.
In 2003, NASA’ Goddard Institute for Space Studies released startling satellite images show the decreasing ice cap in the Arctic (above image). The September ice extent trend for 1979-2004 declined by 7.7 percent per decade (Stroeve et al. 2005). The year 2005 set a new record low for Arctic sea ice, dropping the estimated decline in end-of-summer Arctic sea ice to approximately 8 percent per decade. Even five-day running mean sea ice extent for July through September for the years 2002-2005 show decreases over the mean from the previous 21 years (below).
Air temperatures over the Arctic show striking anomalies in 2006, similar to recent previous years, and in some area are 5 degrees C above normal (below).
All this global warming and reduced ice pack means a commercially viable, Northwest Passage is becoming more feasible and who actually owns it more disputed. Canada claims the waters of the Northwest Passage are within their territorial waters. The U.S. refuses such and in 1985 sailed the Polar Sea without obtaining permission from Canada provoking the response of a official declaration in 1986 reaffirming Canada’s claim. In 1988 the Arctic Co-operation Agreement between the two countries was established based on the previous quarrel stating the United States will not send any more icebreakers through the passage without Canada’s consent, and Canada will always give that consent
Stephen Harper, serving as the Prime Minister of Canada, campaigned with the agenda of increasing Canada’s presence and strengthening their claim in the Northwest Passage. Currently, this includes the construction eight Polar Class 5 Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships, at cost of 3 billion dollars (US), and the establishment of a deep water port in the far North in Nunavut (map below).
“Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty over the Arctic. We either use it or lose it. And make no mistake, this government intends to use it. Because Canada’s Arctic is central to our national identity as a northern nation. It is part of our history. And it represents the tremendous potential of our future,” said Prime Minister Harper further stating “In defending our nation’s sovereignty, nothing is as fundamental as protecting Canada’s territorial integrity; our borders, our airspace and our waters.”
But Northerners are questioning these tactics stating it relies too much on military spending and not enough on economic development. The U.S. has responded by the promise to increase its naval fleet of ships and other craft in the Arctic, the day after Canada promised to build the new vessels. But wait it is not just about the passage.
As much as a quarter of the world’s oil and gas supplies could be in the region, Rear-Admiral Brian Salerno of the U.S. Coast Guard said today, citing statistics from the U.S. Geological Survey. Global warming in the Arctic has “implications for national energy security,” he said.
To complicate the matter further, Russia is also claiming a majority of the Arctic at their territory. The claim is based on new scientific findings of a geological connection between Russia’s land mass and an underwater ridge extending over the North Pole.
“The Lomonosov Ridge forms an inalienable part of Russia’s Siberian platform,” institute deputy director Viktor Posyolov was quoted by ITAR-Tass as saying.